Exercise can help reduce pain, and may slow joint damage and allow you to maintain a healthy weight. An appropriate workout can strengthen the muscle around the joint, resulting in less pain.
Exercise programs for people with arthritis are developed by a health professional (such as a physiotherapist) and include 3 types of activity: flexibility (stretching, range of motion), strengthening, and endurance (aerobic, cardiovascular).
Before starting, talk with your doctor to be sure the exercises you have in mind are right for you. Assessment by a physiotherapist can help you set appropriate goals and modify exercises to prevent joint injury. Ask what activities can be done during a flare. Gentle range-of-motion exercises can often be continued and may help preserve joint function.
Flexibility (stretching, range of motion) exercises should be done on a daily basis. They are relaxing and aid in warming up before a more challenging exercise to help protect joints from injury.
Start slowly and work up to 15 minutes of flexibility exercises each day. When you can do 15 minutes continuously, it is probably time to add strengthening and endurance exercises to your program.
Tai chi and yoga are good examples of range-of-motion exercises.
Strengthening exercises use resistance or weights to work your muscles and increase their strength. Strong, fit muscles help protect joints from injury and stress.
There are 2 types of strengthening exercises: isometric and isotonic.
- Isometric exercises strengthen the muscles without moving the joint. They are a good choice for people with arthritis.
- Isotonic exercises work the muscle while moving the joint. They can be made easier so that they can be done when a joint is inflamed. Adding repetitions or weights can make isotonic exercises more difficult, which can be done when a joint is healthy.
Strengthening exercises should be done every other day, after you have warmed up with flexibility exercises.
Any activity that uses the body's large muscles in continuous, rhythmic motions is considered an endurance exercise (e.g., aerobic, cardiovascular).
Examples include bicycling, swimming, dancing, and walking. These exercises improve the fitness of your lungs, heart, muscles, and blood vessels. Low-impact exercises (e.g., water aerobics, walking, swimming) can reduce pain and ease the symptoms of RA. Endurance exercises also control weight, increase stamina, strengthen bones, and improve your outlook on life.
Endurance exercise should be performed 3 to 4 times per week. Your goal is to exercise at your target heart range for 30 minutes per workout. You can start slowly, with even just 5 minutes initially at your target heart range, and work toward your 30-minute goal as you get stronger.